Pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins.
It is unrealistic, unattractive and unprofitable. One would have to be rather foolish, it seems, to grant significant room in his life to pride. If the devil could laugh, and the angels could weep, they would do so over the way we human beings stubbornly cling to pride.
Yet, of all the seven deadly sins, it is the most subtle to diagnose, the most common, and the most difficult to eliminate.
We should note, however, that not all pride is deadly. There is a sense in which pride is fully justified. A parent has this good pride when his children attain some standard of excellence. Likewise, a coach can be proud of his players for comporting themselves with good sportsmanship.
Good pride conforms to a good standard; bad pride does not.
St. Thomas Aquinas referred to this latter kind of pride as the attempt to achieve a “perverse excellence.” This form of pride, though it has many facets, is, basically, an inordinate desire for praise, honors and recognition. Because it is “inordinate,” it is out of synchrony with who we really are as well as our proper place in the grand scheme of things. “In general,” as John Ruskin has remarked, “pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.”
Pride as Unrealistic
Pride is unrealistic on a personal level. We are not the cause of our own being. We do not bestow upon ourselves whatever gifts we have. Our life is short, and our hour is fleeting. It is, as Shakespeare called it, a “brief candle.” It is a mere moment in time, a veritable sliver wedged between two eternities. It makes far more sense that humble gratitude be our dominant characteristic rather than pride. One thing we can truly take credit for is our willingness to attain humble gratitude.
Pride is unrealistic on a historical level. The virtue of piety, one that has lost a great deal of its force and beauty in the present era, honors the historical factors that give us not only our life, but all the opportunities, conveniences, blessings and riches to which we are heir. Thus, we honor our parents and our ancestry as well as our tradition. Because we receive more than we can possibly give, an attitude of thanksgiving seems to be far more appropriate than the desire to seek praise.
Pride is unrealistic on a social level. Each person is but one among the 7 billion souls who presently populate the world. Cooperation with others is the key to a well-ordered, peaceful and prosperous society. A multitude of prideful egos breeds calamity. The proud person is reluctant to yield to the views of others principally because he wants his own way to prevail. Pride unchecked is a recipe for social catastrophe. One ego getting its own way is possible; two competing egos getting their own way is not possible.
Pride is unrealistic on a theological level. We are creatures. Therefore, it is owing to the beneficence of our Creator that we came into existence. The fundamental distinction between Creator and creature is one that Adam and Eve, in their pride, failed to honor. Their original sin of pride, which caused their dismissal from paradise and has plagued their descendants ever since, is the consequence of this failure. The creature should not aspire to be more that he can become. This is the sin of presumption. The Creator is not proud for being the Creator. That is within his province. His creatures should honor both the reality of their Creator as well as their own.
Pride as Unattractive
Boastfulness is unattractive. “The proud hate pride — in others,” Benjamin Franklin quipped in his Poor Richard’s Almanac. The braggart, the show-off, is essentially boring. No one enjoys the spectacle of another person trying to create the impression that he is larger or more important that others know him to be. Boastfulness is a verbal manifestation of pride. Its essential weakness lies in the fact that actions speak louder than words, and people are far more impressed by good actions.
Ostentation is unattractive. A person, by flaunting his elaborate attire, affected manners or costly possessions, may try to convince others of his superiority. This strategy backfires when it provokes laughter or derision. Ostentation is fine for a peacock. Modesty is more appropriate for human beings. Ostentation sends the unwelcomed message “Look at me!” Unfortunately, people see more deeply than what is on the surface. The ostentatious person can make a very sad spectacle of himself.
Hypocrisy is unattractive. Hypocrisy is the attempt to make people think that you are better than you know yourself to be. It is a fairly universal vice and a left-handed way in which vice pays tribute to virtue. But it is shallow and dishonest. Therefore, it is essentially unattractive, as any other form of duplicity is unattractive. People prefer to witness the shining example of moral integrity. But that is something which they observe, not something that they are tricked into believing.
Self-absorption is unattractive. “Man is a social animal,” as Aristotle rightly pointed out. We read in Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Self-absorption is more than unrealistic. It conveys a certain contempt for all others. C.S. Lewis has noted, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” The glaring fact that the self-absorbed person misses out on a great deal makes him out to be someone to be pitied, not praised.
Pride as Unprofitable
Pride is unprofitable because it is precipitous, which is to say that it brings about a fall. This time-honored and biblically rooted axiom can be easily illustrated. Hold a small object, such as a baseball, at arm’s length, and then release it. To no one’s astonishment, it falls to the floor. The reason that it falls is because nothing is supporting it. Because pride does not have a foundation in reality, it can do nothing other than fall. Hence, it is not only unprofitable, but actually counterproductive. “I charge thee: Fling away ambition,” warned Shakespeare. “By that sin fell the angels” (Henry VIII, III: 2).
Pride is unprofitable because it is wasteful. Pride is a wasteful expenditure of time and energy. Working humbly in God’s vineyard is far more productive (though it might not get headlines) than trying to convince others of an illusion. Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge titled his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Timebecause he came to realize that a great deal of his life was misspent because it flowed from that pernicious species of pride known as selfish ambition.
Pride is unprofitable because it is self-rejecting. Pride is a mask that is used to conceal the real self that we have rejected. It is a form of despair, as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has described at length, because it installs an artificial self in the place of the real self. People speak of “swallowing one’s pride.” It is surely advisable to swallow one’s pride in order to allow one’s real self to emerge. We might add that no one has ever choked to death as a result of swallowing his pride.
Pride is unprofitable because it is cataclysmic, insofar as it sets a spark to the other six deadly sins. Because pride is unrealistic (more specifically, vain and presumptuous), the proud person will meet with opposition and, as a result, experience much frustration. This frustration inevitably leads to anger and envy toward others who have fared better. Such a person, in addition, may give up and seek the solace of sloth. Or he may try to ease the torment of his frustrations in lustful, gluttonous or avaricious ways. Pride can set in motion a cascade of sins.
The mythical Narcissus is the personification of deadly pride. His incessant praise of himself led him to neglect the necessities of life and, therefore, to his premature demise. The Narcissus myth is a cautionary tale warning people against the vanity of pride. Christ, on the other hand, tells us that he is meek and humble of heart. Moreover, Scripture tells us that he was obedient unto death.
The choice between Narcissus and Christ is, intellectually, not difficult to make. But on the practical level of our own lived lives, it requires all that we can muster.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College.